Archive for June 2009

DABHVSinP – Part 6: Turning toward Poetry

June 28, 2009

When I began this series, I agreed with Niccacci that the verb in poetry should function basically the same as elsewhere. It seems counter-intuitive that a poet could grab any verb form they want for stylistic purposes. His contention is that we can partly understand the switching of verbal forms in poetry by looking at the correlation of “tense-switching” (as Niccacci calls it) to the pragmatic function of grounding in discourse (ie non-narrative). The main switches of foreground > background would be:

Past Tense wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal
  wayyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol (imperfective)
  wayyiqtol > wəqatal (modal)
Future Indicative wəqatal > waw-x-yiqtol
Future volitive wəyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol

Obviously, you can always switch to a verbless clause as well. Also, if poetry follows discourse, we should expect a past tense sequence to begin with a qatal, a future indicative to begin with x-yiqtol, and a future volitive to begin with some sort of volitive form before continuing with the standard foreground forms.

For support, Niccacci brings many examples from Psalm 78, such as Ps 78:29 (his translation):

29 וַיֹּאכְל֣וּ וַיִּשְׂבְּע֣וּ מְאֹ֑ד וְ֝תַֽאֲוָתָ֗ם יָבִ֥א לָהֶֽם׃
And they ate and were well filled. // Indeed, what they craved he was giving them.

Here he interprets the first two wayyiqtols as the normal foreground tense (simple past), and the x-yiqtol as background (past imperfective). I don’t have a problem with this interpretation. In fact, if you take the previous two verses together, the end of verse 25 is a nice summary statement which is probably better as a past habitual:

27 He rained meat on them like dust,
          winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28 he let them fall in the midst of their camp,
          all around their dwellings.
29 And they ate and were well filled,
          for what they craved he would give them.

However, I have reservations about how well this can be applied to poetry as a whole. First, the use of “tense-switching” to express grounding in narrative and discourse relies on three things: use of syndetic clauses, meaningful word order, and contingent temporal succession. In poetry we have none of these consistently. Second, Psalm 78 may be a somewhat misleading example since it is so heavily influenced by narrative. In the whole collection of psalms, the Westminster Hebrew Morphology shows 332 wayyiqtols. In Psalm 78 we have 59. The other narrative Psalm, 106, has 54 more.

Thirdly, biblical narrative is written in a standardized, literary dialect (and that includes the direct discourse found within narrative). I would expect the verbal system of poetry to reflect that of the language in general, but we only have a small slice of language represented in narrative. Further, poets are free (and inclined) to pull from archaic language and rare usage, so we should not expect that all the uses of the verbs should be explainable by comparison to narrative texts. In my next few posts, I will consider some of these reservations as I turn toward poetry.

My five

June 28, 2009

I have been slow to participate in the latest biblioblog craze, begun by Ken Brown, to list the five books/authors that have most influenced the way you read the Bible. I’m not really a disciple of any one guy, so my influences have been more of a hodge-podge. You have to get this sort of list just right too. Nobody so popular and obvious that its a no-brainer, but you also have to fight the urge to pull out someone obscure just to make yourself look smart. So here is my list in no particular order:

1. John Calvin. What can I say, I’m Dutch Reformed and I’m a Calvinist. Don’t worry, I’m not one of those jerky Calvinists that always wants to debate obscure points of theology, nor do I believe that the study of theology was exhausted by the 17th century. I’ll subsume the other Dutch theologians like Berkouwer and Bavinck under Calvin.

2. James Barr. His earlier work like The Semantics of Biblical Language more than the later foray into Biblical Theology. I also found his books on fundamentalism engaging and insightful, even if overly polemical.

3. Hermann Gunkel. Of all the old critics, I think I like Gunkel the best. He has a good feel for literature, and his study of Genesis is very insightful. I don’t have time for dissecting the text into J7 and E23, etc. 

4. Geoffery Khan. For my Semitist I pick Khan. What I like about his work is that he stands in the tradition of Bergsträsser and the like by putting emphasis on the living Semitic languages, such as Neo-Aramaic. What we learn from these languages is the complex relationships between dialects in a living language that are somewhat smoothed out in the literary language of the Bible.

5. W.F. Albright. I don’t know if I have any major views that are “Albrightian”, but his influence on the field is pervasive and his mastery of multiple disciplines is inspiring.

DABHVSinP – Part 5: Beyond Narrative

June 26, 2009

The distinction between foregrounded and backgrounded clauses began with the observation that a narrative can be subdivided into clauses which narrate a sequence of events and those that do not, termed narrative and non-narrative clauses. Non-narrative clauses may present events that are out of sequence, such as flashbacks, or may not narrate events at all, such as descriptions or explanations. Since a narrative tends to be about a sequence of temporal events, it seemed natural that the narrative clauses would be the most salient, hence the term foreground. The non-narrative clauses were considered less salient, and hence background. However, to what extent does this distinction hold as we move away from the narrative genre?  

Here is where the approaches of Longacre and Niccacci begin to diverge. To understand Niccacci’s approach, it is important to begin with the work of Harald Weinrich. Weinrich approached language from the perspective of text-linguistics and made a fundamental distinction between two registers of text which reflect the orientation of the author to the subject: Erzählen and Besprechen. The former is translated as narrative, and the latter is variously translated as comment, discussion, discourse, etc. I will use discourse here, since that is what Niccacci seems to prefer, but note that it differs from Longacre’s definition of discourse which is more similar to Weinrich’s “text”, ie the largest unit for analysis. Also, Weinrich is interested in texts so Besprechen doesn’t refer to actual spoken language, but rather to when an author makes use of more conversational language. Narrative is impersonal and tends to be related in the third person and past tense, while discourse is more intimate, bringing the author and reader into the situation by using first and second person along with present and future tense.

Within each of these groups, Weinrich identifies two further axes which motivate the choice of verbal form. Perspective is something like relative tense, and depends on whether the event is contemporary (called neutral or null degree), anterior, or posterior to the reference frame. For narrative the temporal reference is past tense, so the simple past is the null degree form, while in discourse the normal null degree form is the present. Lastly, Weinrich describes relief, which is the use of  tense forms to distinguish foreground from background. The parade example is French where the passé simple is the narrative form appearing in foregrounded clauses while the imparfait appears in background clauses.

As far as I can tell, Weinrich only discusses the use of specific verbal forms for expressing relief within narrative. This is because narrative is the special case. As seen in the French example and in Biblical Hebrew, among others, it is not uncommon for languages to develop special forms for narrative. Schneider, through whom Weinrich’s ideas impacted the study of Biblical Hebrew, specifically states that in discourse foreground and background are not expressed by the use of verb tenses, but by other means:

Vordergrund und Hintergrund der Rede werden – anders als in Erzählung – nicht durch die Tempora – sondern durch andere Zeichen (Satzstellung, Partikeln, Hinweise auf die Sprechsituation) bezeichnet (Grammatik §, 188).  

Niccacci, however, extended the idea to non-narrative texts. Of course, since there are many more tense forms available in discourse, the system becomes much more complicated. For the present tense, the normal clause type is the simple nominal clause. This type is used for both foreground and background, which must be distinguished by other means. 

In the past tense, the system is the same as in narrative, except that the initial verb is an (x)-qatal form, and then the following foregrounded clauses use wayyiqtol. Background is again expressed by x-qatal, non-verbal sentences, x-yiqtol, and wəqatal

For the future, Niccacci distinguishes between indicative and volitive moods. A future indicative text begins with an x-yiqtol (Niccacci argues that all clause initial yiqtols are volitive) and the foreground verbs then switch to wəqatal. Background information is signified by the switch wəqatal > waw-x-yiqtol which is analogous to the shift wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal in narrative. The future volitive begins with a volitive form (cohortative, jussive, imperative). Niccacci argues that the following foregrounded verbs then switch to wəyiqtol if the volitional mood is to be continued, but to wəqatal if the mood switches to indicative future, ie as a succession of events that will naturally follow. 

Longacre has also extended the correlation of verbal forms with grounding beyond narrative, but with slightly different parameters. He has not followed the distinction of narrative and discourse, but instead suggests two basic parameters: contingent temporal succession and agent-orientation. For our purposes, the more important is contingent temporal succession, which is basically the existence of a chronological backbone to the text. Texts without such a backbone are organized logically or thematically. Thus a prophetic text is similar to a narrative, only with a future orientation. Instructional and procedural texts describe how something usually is or should be done, and also follow a sequence of steps. In all three, Longacre argues that wəqatal is the primary tense while x-yiqtol is used for secondary themes. 

If we synthesize these two views, you will notice that there are three basic forms used for foreground. In narrative it is the wayyiqtol, while in future/modal contexts wəqatal and wəyiqtol are the foreground forms. The main secondary forms are x-qatal and x-yiqtol respectively. Note that the foregrounded forms are all clause-initial, while backgrounded forms are not. Again, I think that this reflects iconicity. In a sequential context we expect the events to be given in order of occurrence, and in NW Semitic it is the clause-initial position that is iconic for sequence. However, when the text does not have a sequential backbone, the distribution of the verbal forms no longer corresponds strongly to the distinction of foreground from background. Instead, as Schneider stated, other means are used.

As we move to poetry then, my working hypothesis is that the correlation of verbal forms to grounding will only be useful to the extent that the poem reflects contingent temporal sequence. 

More Bibliography

June 24, 2009

Here is an MA thesis that attempts to apply Niccacci’s approach to the verb system in poetry, judging it approvingly. My own series of posts feel like they are turning into an MA thesis.

Hebrew Narrative Syntax

June 24, 2009

I just stumbled across Christo van der Merwe’s overview of the recent study of Hebrew narrative syntax in E. J. van Wolde’s Narrative Syntax and the Hebrew Bible. He discusses many of the issues I have been trying to summarize here. The link will take you to the Google Books page thanks to their nifty new feature. You can also embed the book within your page, but I think my center column is too narrow for that to be useful. I like the new look though, very nice.

DABHVSinP – Part 4: Exceptions and Refinements

June 22, 2009

In my last post I described Niccacci and Longacre’s analyses of the BH verb in narrative from the perspective of grounding. Both agree that wayyiqtol clauses are foregrounded while other clauses are backgrounded. Longacre goes one step further by ranking the other types of clauses and assigning them to various bands of salience within a typical narrative. However, it is not always the case that a wayyiqtol is in the foreground or that a clause with qatal is in the background. Remember also that there are multiple parameters that contribute to the cline of saliency beyond the semantics of the verb.

For instance, in his analysis of the Joseph narrative, Longacre himself sometimes assigns the wayyiqtol to a lower rank. In Gn 37:12 Longacre assigns the first wayyiqtol, וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ, to the setting band:


12 וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ אֶחָ֑יו לִרְע֛וֹת אֶ֗ת֗־צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶ֖ם בִּשְׁכֶֽם׃ So his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem.
13 וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי׃ And Israel said to Joseph, “Look, your brothers are pasturing in Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am”.

The wayyiqtol corresponds to foreground material because it is often punctual and sequential. However, הלך is an intransitive verb of motion, which is naturally durative. Longacre suggests that it belongs to the setting band because it removes the brothers from the scene (they don’t appear again as a subject until verse 18 in Dothan, a new setting) and seems to prepare directly for Israel’s statement in the next verse. One might be tempted to translate, “Now Joseph’s brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Look your brothers are pasturing in Shechem…'” But why didn’t the author use an x-qatal construction to specify that it is setting? Perhaps the clause is meant to be closer to the foreground since it is sequential in relation to the larger narrative?

Jean-Marc Heimerdinger lists further exceptions to Longacre’s verb ranking. For example, he gives 2 Kg 4:36-37:


36 וַיִּקְרָ֣א אֶל־גֵּיחֲזִ֗י וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ קְרָא֙ אֶל־הַשֻּׁנַמִּ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וַיִּקְרָאֶ֖הָ וַתָּב֣וֹא אֵלָ֑יו וַיֹּ֖אמֶר שְׂאִ֥י בְנֵֽךְ׃ He summoned Gehazi and said, “Summon this Shunamite.” So he called her and she came to him and he said, “Take your son.”
37 וַתָּבֹא֙ וַתִּפֹּ֣ל עַל־רַגְלָ֔יו וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָ֑רְצָה וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־בְּנָ֖הּ וַתֵּצֵֽא She came and she fell at his feet and she bowed upon the ground. Then she took her son and went out.

In verse 37 there is a string of 3 wayyiqtol verbs, but they do not seem to be equally important to the story line. Heimerdinger argues that תִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ could be removed without losing anything from the plot. In fact, this is a good example of a chain of wayyiqtols that are non-sequential. Instead they seem to be describing aspects of the same action, thus the ESV translates, “She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground.” In Longacre’s defense, he also recognizes that this is a common characteristic of the wayyiqtol. If the subject remains constant, two successive verbs may be used to describe a single event. It is most common with verbs of speaking such as ענה and אמר, “And he answered and said…” Again though, note that there is nothing grammatically special about וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָ֑רְצָה. The only way to know that it is non-sequential is the semantics, thus Heimerdinger reminds us that there is not an isomorphic relationship between the grammatical form of the clause and grounding.

So wayyiqtol is not always in the foreground, but is the reverse true? Can a non-wayyiqtol clause ever be pushed into the foreground? Heimerdinger gives the example of Gn 25:34, but the whole story is interesting:


29 וַיָּ֥זֶד יַעֲקֹ֖ב נָזִ֑יד וַיָּבֹ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו מִן־הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וְה֥וּא עָיֵֽף׃ Jacob cooked a stew and Esau came in from the field and he was tired.
30 וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם׃ Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me eat some of this red stuff because I am tired.” Therefore they called his name Edom.
31 וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃ Jacob said, “Sell your birthright to me today.”
32 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י הוֹלֵ֖ךְ לָמ֑וּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּ֥ה לִ֖י בְּכֹרָֽה׃ And Esau said, “Look, I am going to die, what is a birthright to me?”
33 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב הִשָּׁ֤בְעָה לִּי֙ כַּיּ֔וֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּמְכֹּ֥ר אֶת־בְּכֹרָת֖וֹ לְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ And Jacob said, “Swear to me today.” So he swore to him and he sold his birthright to Jacob.
34 וְיַעֲקֹ֞ב נָתַ֣ן לְעֵשָׂ֗ו לֶ֚חֶם וּנְזִ֣יד עֲדָשִׁ֔ים וַיֹּ֣אכַל וַיֵּ֔שְׁתְּ וַיָּ֖קָם וַיֵּלַ֑ךְ וַיִּ֥בֶז עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶת־הַבְּכֹרָֽה And Jacob gave bread and lentil stew to Esau and he ate and he drank and he rose and went. And Esau despised his birthright.

The story begins immediately with a wayyiqtol in verse 29, which seems to belong to the setting band as in Gn 37:12 above. The ESV translates, “Once when Jacob was cooking stew”, clearly putting it into the background. In contrast, the first clause in verse 34 is clearly sequential, but an <x>-qatal clause, which Longacre would analyze as participant-oriented, and which should signal a break in sequence.

Here is where some native speakers would really be helpful. Is this clause meant to be slightly backgrounded, or is something else motivating the grammar? And how can we measure it without falling into circular reasoning?

I could possibly see this as a background clause. I noted in an earlier post that sequential actions can be backgrounded if put into a subordinate clause, so it is not totally unexpected. Also, notice that the chain of wayyiqtols from the end of verse 33 through to the end all have Esau as subject. Moreover, beginning at וַיֹּ֣אכַל the clauses include only a verb, narrating the successive actions in a short burst, which tends to be typical for the peak of a story. Lastly, the final summary clause tells us that the point of the story is to condemn Esau, which would suggest that Esau is the main subject of the story, and thus Jacob’s role could be secondary in this concluding series of verbs.

Now, I do not think that these exceptions bring the whole idea of a relationship between grounding and clause types crashing down. However, it does call into question the direction of that relationship. That is, the choice of verbal forms cannot be explained simply by some discourse-pragmatic grounding function, but rather several other parameters are in play. It seems to me more likely that wayyiqtol is simply the unmarked narrative verb, ie it is the natural choice for a main narrative clause regardless of its relative saliency. To the extent that foreground corresponds to the main sequential events in the narrative clauses, wayyiqtol corresponds to the foreground. But, wayyiqtol is not necessarily sequential or highly transitive.

Sequence in narrative tends to be iconic. Iconicity describes a property of language where the form matches the meaning (A good example is the use of a doubled morpheme for plurality). In a narrative, if you have a series of simple past tense verbs it is assumed that they are ordered sequentially. Note that in English you do not have to say “then…and then…” It is the non-sequential verbs that should be marked either by the tense form or a preposition. In Hebrew and other NW Semitic narrative, iconic sequence also corresponds to the verb-initial clause, hence wayyiqtol is always verb-initial. I agree with Longacre that clauses which front a non-verbal element shift the focus to that element, and away from the verb, which usually also implies a break in the temporal sequence. This series is (hopefully) moving toward an analysis of poetry, and I think the main issue will be the extent to which verb-initial and non-verb initial clauses still correspond to foreground and background when a sequential backbone is no longer assumed.

Further Reading

Jean-Marc Heimerdinger’s dissertation is published as Topic, Focus, and Foreground in Ancient Hebrew Narratives, JSOTSup 295, Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1999. He spends an entire chapter criticizing Longacre, and offers instead a more literarily sensitive approach which considers the participants in a clause more than the verb forms (hence the Topic and Focus from the title). I think he slightly reduces Longacre’s view, if you read his actual analysis of the Joseph narrative he is somewhat sensitive to literary features, unfortunately he does not work these parameters into his verb ranking scheme.

Other unpublished works dealing with the relationship between verbal clauses and salience in narrative include Douglas Kasten’s UT Arlington MA Thesis Salience in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (1994) in which he attempted to measure the salience of different types of verbal clauses independently. Tarsee Li’s HUC Dissertation The expression of Sequence and Non-Sequence in Northwest Semitic Narrative Prose (1999) explored the relationship between iconicity and clause initial position. 

DABHVSinP – Part 3: Grounding in BH Narrative

June 15, 2009

OK, sorry for the long delay. I ended up on some rabbit trails, had to wait for some extra books to come in at the Library (thanks Ben), and then I spent most of Saturday in the ER with my wife (kidney stones). In case you forgot, in this series of posts I am considering the applicability of a discourse-pragmatic model centered on the distinction between background and foreground information to our understanding of the BH verbal system in poetry. In my last post I attempted to introduce the concepts of foregrounding and backgrounding in general, and in this post I would like to discuss grounding in  biblical narrative specifically. 

Biblical Hebrew narrative lends itself well to discussions of grounding. One of the well-known quirks of the BH verbal system is the existence of both a qatal form that seems to have past temporal reference and the so-called “waw-consecutive imperfect” wayyiqtol, also past tense. It has long been recognized that chains of wayyiqtol verbs are used for the main action of a narrative, which corresponds with our definition of foregrounding. Thus some have better labeled wayyiqtol a narrative preterite or narrative tense. The system would work nicely if qatal was reserved for backgrounded clauses, and in general this scheme seems to fit.

Niccacci’s description of the clause types is rather standard (though his explanations are a bit idiosyncratic, and much of his terminology is inherited from Harald Weinrich through Schneider and Talstra). The wayyiqtol is described as the foreground narrative tense which is “degree zero,” ie it is in line with the tense of the main narrative. There are four basic “tense shifts” which signal a shift from foreground to background (note that x represents some other clause initial element):

(1) wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal

(2) wayyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol

(3) wayyiqtol > wəqatal 

(4) wayyiqtol > waw + simple nominal clause

Shifts (2) and (3) are used for repetitive or habitual action. Note that in all cases except (3) the shift from foreground to background is also accompanied by a non-verbal element occupying clause initial position (Niccacci describes (1) and (2) as complex nominal clauses, even though they contain a verb, since they begin with a nominal, hence the designation “simple nominal clause” for (4). This is one of the aforementioned idiosyncrasies). In each of these shifts, the background clause somehow breaks the temporal succession whether as a flashback or a contemporaneous action. However, when the shifts occur in the opposite direction, Niccacci argues that the background clause specifically indicates an event antecedent to the wayyiqtol clause. 

While relying in part on the work of Schneider, Talstra, and Niccacci, Robert Longacre has developed the notion of grounding much further, and his scheme has probably been the most influential. Beyond describing the types of clauses, Longacre has attempted to create a saliency hierarchy to rank them (adapted from “A Discourse Perspective on the Hebrew Verb” in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, p 180):

Band 1: Storyline 1.1. wayyiqtol (Primary storyline)
  1.2. qatal (Secondary storyline)
  1.3. Noun + qatal (Secondary storyline with noun in focus
Band 2: Background Activities 2.1. Noun + yiqtol (Durative/repetitive)
  2.2. hinneh + participle
  2.3. participle (durative)
  2.4. Noun + participle
Band 3: Setting 3.1. wayəhi
  3.2. hayah
  3.3. Verbless clause
  3.4. Existential clause w/yēš
Band 4: Irrealis 4. Negation of verb
Band 5: Cohesion 5.1. General reference
  5.2. Script predictable
  5.3. Repetition

Since the wayyiqtol form is used as the foreground narrative tense, the qatal form can be used for what Longacre calls secondary storylines. This is slightly different from his original scheme (see his Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence, 1989) which placed the qatal form in Band 2: Backgrounded Actions with participle clauses in Band 3: Backgrounded Activities. Longacre gives Gn 40:20-23 as an example of the various bands (I have added my translation with foregrounded verbs in CAPS as before).

20 וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י י֚וֹם הֻלֶּ֣דֶת אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיַּ֥עַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּ֖ה לְכָל־עֲבָדָ֑יו וַיִּשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֣אשׁ ׀ שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֗ים וְאֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ שַׂ֥ר הָאֹפִ֖ים בְּת֥וֹךְ עֲבָדָֽיו׃ So on the third day, the day on which Pharaoh was born, he HELD a banquet for all his servants, and he LIFTED the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker in the midst of all his servants.
21 וַיָּ֛שֶׁב אֶת־שַׂ֥ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֖ים עַל־מַשְׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּתֵּ֥ן הַכּ֖וֹס עַל־כַּ֥ף פַּרְעֹֽה׃ And he RETURNED the chief cupbearer to his office, and he PLACED the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.
22 וְאֵ֛ת שַׂ֥ר הָאֹפִ֖ים תָּלָ֑ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר פָּתַ֛ר לָהֶ֖ם יוֹסֵֽף׃ But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had interpreted for them.
23 וְלֹֽא־זָכַ֧ר שַֽׂר־הַמַּשְׁקִ֛ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵֽהוּ׃ And the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, and he FORGOT him.

The section begins with a wayəhi clause for setting, and the narrating proper begins with a wayyiqtol (וַיַּ֥עַשׂ). Verse 22 breaks the sequence of wayyiqtols by fronting the chief baker and uses a qatal. Longacre suggests that the clause is participant-oriented rather than action-oriented (I haven’t explained this yet, but you can get the gist) marking it as a secondary storyline. In the next verse it is the cupbearer who is important and who continues the story. Verse 23 begins with an irrealis clause, by definition off the main storyline, but the second half uses a wayyiqtol and is on the main storyline.

So, in general, the wayyiqtol is used to narrate the foreground, while other happenings (to use Longacre’s preferred term) which are off the main storyline use different clause types. In my next post I will look at some of the exceptions to the notion that wayyiqtol is always the foregrounded verb as well as some criticism of Longacre, especially Jean-Marc Heimerdinger’s dissertation. 

For Further Reading

Niccacci’s The Syntax of the Verb in Classical Hebrew Prose, JSOTSupp 86, 1990 is his most in-depth work, but it reads like only slightly edited class notes and it is clear that his thinking had not entirely crystallized at that point. He gives a nice short summary, “Essential Hebrew Syntax” in Narrative and Comment: Contributions presented to Wolfgang Schneider, Societas Hebraica Amstelodamensis, 1995.

Longacre also has a short article in that volume presenting his work, but a better summary article is his “A Discourse Perspective on the Hebrew Verb: Affirmation and Restatement”  in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, Eisenbrauns, 1992. His most in-depth work is Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence, Eisenbrauns, 1989.  


DABHVSinP – Part 2: Foreground and Background

June 10, 2009

In this series of posts, I am interacting with Alviero Niccacci’s attempt to explain the BH verbal system in poetry by a discourse-pragmatic method. See the introductory post here. My goal in this post is to introduce the concepts of foreground and background information in general before discussing how they may be applied to biblical poetry.

The distinction of foreground from background information was first developed in the analysis of narrative. The idea began with Labov, among others, who sought to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative clauses within a text where narrative clauses contain the events of the story which are temporally sequenced. The terms foreground and background (taken from Gestalt Theory) were introduced by Hopper and Thompson. Foreground refers to the sequential events which are presented on the primary storyline of the narrative, while background is everything else that is presented off-line (Labov’s “non-narrative” material). Longacre includes the criteria that the sequential events must also be contingent upon each other. In the following example the foregrounded verbs are given in CAPITALS, while the backgrounded verbs are in italics:

(1) Yesterday I WENT to the grocery store. (2) It was the Kroger down the street. (3) I SAW my neighbor John there, (4) and he SAID that (5) our friend Bob had been hit by a car. (6) While we were talking, (7) Bob WALKED UP on crutches. (8) We ASKED him (9) how he was doing (10) and he SAID (11) he was okay.

Note that the foregrounded verbs are simple past tense, as is common in most languages for narrative, and that they all occur in main independent clauses. Descriptive and equative clauses such as (2) are naturally off the storyline since they do not narrate an event. Subordinate clauses also tend to report events that are off the main storyline as in (5). Lastly, durative and progressive forms such as (6) tend to be circumstantial, providing context for other punctual events.  

The relationship between foreground and background material is not strictly binary, and scholars have argued for a scalar approach with degrees of “backgroundedness”. If you think of a narrative as a painting, foregrounded information would appear closer to you while background material is further and further off in the distance. Note the subtle shift happening here. Foreground and background information were originally based on temporal ordering, but it seemed natural that the foreground information was also the most important in the discourse while background information was secondary. Keeping with the analogy of the painting, what is in the foreground is also largest and therefore most prominent. In linguistic jargon this is usually also referred to as salience. Along with coherence (the way that the individual pieces of information relate to one another) salience is one of the more important features of a discourse.

How then does an author “move” information from the background to the foreground? Hopper and Thompson argued that the transitivity of a clause was related to its prominence in discourse with high transitivity related to foregrounding and low transitivity related to backgrounding. They offered ten parameters associated with transitivity that can be used to mark prominence (adapted from pg 252):

Parameter High T Low T
1. Participants 2 or more, A(gent) and O(bject) 1
2. Kinesis Action Non-action
3. Punctuality Punctual Non-punctual
4. Volitionality Volitional Non-volitional
5. Affirmation Affirmative Negative
6. Mode Realis Irrealis
7. Agency A high in potency A low in potency
8. Affectedness of O O totally affected O not affected
9. Individuation of O O highly individuated O non-individuated

I do not have room to explain each parameter, but in general the assumption is that storylines seem to be advanced by events in which characters perform actions that change things, ie a backbone of cause –> effect relationships. However, some scholars have debated whether this correlation is dependent on the discourse context or the natural semantics of the clause. Lakoff arrived at a similar list to describe transitivity, but argued that the parameters were primarily derived from semantics rather than discourse, and Tomlin also criticized the conclusions since 39% of high transitivity clauses were actually in the background, a red flag if transitivity is supposed to mark foreground (See Delancey’s paper in the volume edited by Tomlin). This is always an issue with discourse analysis and one which we will return to later – what is the best direction of explanation? Do discourse concerns drive the morpho-syntax, are semantics primary, is there a reciprocal relationship between the two, or perhaps some third thing that both are co-dependent on?

Longacre largely built his salience scheme on Hopper and Thompson, to whom he adds the parameter of sequentiality. This accounts for an action that may be highly transitive but off the main storyline since it does not occur in sequence as in clause (5) in the example above (I am not sure though how much of the 39% this accounts for). Drawing also from Grimes, he posits 7 bands for English narrative (adapted from pg 24-25):

Band 1. Storyline simple past tense, contingent sequence, main clause
Band 2. Background past progressive
Band 3. Flashback pluperfect
Band 4. Setting intransitive verbs with inanimate subjects
Band 5. Irrealis negatives and modals/futures
Band 6. Evaluation Past tense, gnomic present
Band 7. Cohesion repetition, back reference

There are two things to note at this point. First, the TAM (Tense/Aspect/Mood) of the verb has a strong correlation with the discourse role of the clause, but it is also not the only parameter and it can be modified by other parameters in certain cases. For instance, in clause (5) I could have said “Bob WAS HIT by a car” using the simple past rather than pluperfect, but it would still be off the main storyline since it is in a subordinate clause and does not occur in sequence. Longacre gives the example of the use of the punctiliar adverb ‘suddenly’ in English as a way to promote information onto the storyline. In the following example, “I couldn’t see” is technically irrealis, and thus should be in Band 5, but it is given a punctual aspect and placed onto the main sequence by the adverb:

Yesterday I was walking in the park when I SAW dark clouds approaching. Suddenly, I COULDN’T SEE a thing and I RAN back to my car blindly before the deluge could soak me. 

Items can also be demoted from the main storyline by being placed in a subordinate clause, as Thompson notes (See  her ‘”Subordination” and Narrative event Structure’ in the Tomlin volume). Consider the following example:  

Yesterday I MADE some toast for breakfast. It was cinnamon and sugar toast like I used to make when I was a kid. After I cleaned the dishes, I TOOK my shower…

“I cleaned the dishes” is punctual and occurs sequentially and contingently between the events of making toast and taking a shower. However, it is placed in a fronted adverbial clause which is a cohesion device used here to reorient the reader to the main storyline after a digression. This would place it in Longacre’s Band 7, the lowest level of salience. 

The other thing to note is that so far we have only discussed narrative discourse, and the ordering principle of narrative discourse is sequence. It seems natural that these principles can be extended to other types of discourse that rely on either temporal or logical sequence, and indeed Longacre has also discussed prophecy and procedural discourse (step by step instructions). But, the question remains how the foreground :: background distinction applies to discourse which is organized differently, say thematically instead of sequentially. Obviously this will be important when we turn to poetry.

Some Bibliography:

Grimes, Joseph. The Thread of Discourse. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Hopper, Paul, “Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse,” In Discourse and Syntax, Syntax and Semantics vol 12.  Edited by T. Givón. New York: Academic Press, 1979. 

Hopper, Paul and S.A. Thompson, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse.” Language 56 (1980): 251-99

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky, “Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.” In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.

Longacre, Robert. The Grammar of Discourse, 2nd Ed. New York: Plenum Press, 1996.

Tomlin, Russel (Ed.). Coherence and Grounding in Discourse, Typological Studies in Language, Vol 11. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987.

Home Run

June 10, 2009

Tonight at softball I hit a home run over the left center field fence. Not Bible or Hebrew related, but I thought I would just let everyone know. See, I have been playing baseball my whole life, and this is the first time I have ever hit a home run out of the park in an actual game. I remember vividly the few times I came up short in High School, though I did hit a couple out in practice. Yes it was a little wind blown, and yes it did hit the top of the fence on the way out, but it was still a pretty good shot. Now I am going to have a beer.

A Discourse approach to the BH Verbal system in Poetry – Part 1

June 9, 2009

In a recent series of posts, Phil Sumpter at Narrative and Ontology explored Alviero Niccacci’s approach to the verb in biblical Hebrew poetry, which is summarized in his essay “The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Poetry” (Pages 247-268 in Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic Setting, edited by Steven Fassberg and Avi Hurvitz, Eisenbrauns, 2006). He also posted an anonymous response recently, continuing the topic. Phil was specifically working with Ps 24:2 where we find the couplet:

כִּי־ה֭וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ For he founded it (the earth) upon the seas
וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ׃ and upon the rivers he established it

Here we have the common phenomenon in Hebrew poetry of a switch from a qatal verbal form in the first colon to a yiqtol form in the second without any apparent change in the temporal reference (since they both describe the main event). Adele Berlin describes qtl // yqtl as grammatical parallelism (Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, 36) and groups it with other phenomena such as negative // positive, singular // plural, or active // passive. However, the difference in these other cases is that the poet chooses contrasting forms for variation, but still uses them normally. For instance, Jer 20:14 is an example of both positive // negative (cursed be // let it not be blessed) and passive // active (I was born // my mother bore me):

אָר֣וּר הַיּ֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֻלַּ֖דְתִּי בּ֑וֹ Cursed be the day on which I was born
י֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יְלָדַ֥תְנִי אִמִּ֖י אַל־יְהִ֥י בָרֽוּךְ׃ the day on which my mother bore me let it not be blessed

So even if qtl // yqtl is an instance of grammatical parallelism, then it seems to me that the forms must still have some intrinsic TAM value that cannot be completely cancelled out in the name of poetry. Thus Niccacci’s instinct, with which I agree, is that the verbal forms in poetry must have some basic relation to the verbal system of prose. It seems odd that poets would have felt free to grab any morphological form they wanted just for variation of style once they had set the appropriate tense in the first colon.

Obviously, scholars have been wrestling with this problem for eons and there are a few solutions. The yiqtol could be translated as a present tense and taken as a sort of historical present  (upon the rivers he establishes it). Conversely, the yiqtol could be taken not as a normal “imperfect”, but as the older short prefixed preterite form (a simple past tense) which has generally fallen out of use. What intrigued me about Niccacci’s solution is that he invokes the foreground :: background distinction that has so far largely been applied to classical narrative. My current hazy dissertation topic is concerned with salience in discourse, so I am reading on foreground :: background anyway, and I was finally able to get a copy of Niccacci’s article as well (it was checked out from our library), so in the next few posts I would like to discuss the merits and demerits of his approach as I see it.


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